Production at weapons plant doubles amid war in Ukraine

Production at a weapons plant in Northern Ireland has doubled, and is set to double again following Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Thales UK operate two sites in the region – with high precision missiles designed and produced at a plant in east Belfast, and final missile assembly at another plant in Crossgar, Co Down.

It designs and produces missiles including Starstreak, Lightweight Multi-role Missile (LMM) systems as well as final assembly of the Saab designed NLAW.

They have also trained UK and Ukraine soldiers in the south of England.

A missile launcher at the Thales plant in east Belfast (Thales/PA)

While various missile systems have been produced at the Belfast plant for decades ,they were last “fired in anger” during the Falklands War in 1982. They were deployed as deterrents in conflicts since, including the Gulf war and Afghanistan.

Starstreak was also used to protect the 2012 London Olympic Games and will be used again at the Paris 2024 Olympic this summer as a deterrent.

However since Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine in February 2022, production of missiles has ramped up and the conflict has seen the missiles fired by Ukrainians fighters.

Starstreak, LMM and Saab NLAWs already procured from Thales by the UK Ministry of Defence were sent to Ukraine as aid.

Missiles manufactured at the Thales plant in east Belfast (Thales/PA)

Thales UK chief executive officer Alex Cresswell described the 40-year gap in the missiles being fired in anger as an illustration of how effective a deterrent the weapons are.

“That’s almost the very definition of conventional deterrents, a good illustration of why people won’t fight you – because you’re prepared to have a fight, it’s a pretty good one,” he told the PA news agency.

“Just the deployment of these weapons in Afghanistan made a difference to whether people decided to fly or not.”

He said previously the last order for the systems from the Ministry of Defence was in 2010-12, but the firm carried on making them for the export market.

Thales globally also makes a range of items including 90% of the SIM cards in people’s phones and its customers range from governments to institutions, cities and private enterprises.

Chief executive officer and chairman of Thales UK Alex Cresswell (Thales/PA)

“The whole economics of it only really makes sense if you’re also exporting. If you rely only on the demand of one client … you can’t possibly run a business on that basis,” he said.

“The fact that they have now been used in anger means that the demand for them is going through the roof because all of a sudden everybody wants them, ironically, so that they don’t have to use them.

“Since just before the invasion of Ukraine up to this year, just a little over two years, factory outputs have doubled. It’s doubled to the most this factory has produced in living memory.

“And then in the next couple of years it will double again.

“After that I don’t think (demand) will depend on world events because everyone has empty cupboards so people will fill their cupboards up I suspect, irrespective of what is going on, and appear to be making efforts to do so.

“If (demand) relied on conflict, it would always be too late. Conflict is much more likely if you’re not prepared for it because if you’re prepared for it, people won’t take you on.

“I see what we do, on balance by preparing for conflict, making it less likely.”

Mr Cresswell said the plant in east Belfast was its “best kept secret” during Northern Ireland’s conflict.

“I’ve been coming here since the mid 1990s and have always believed in this place, and it was all through the Troubles our best kept secret, nobody really knew what we did here, then there was a war in Ukraine and everybody knows, and it becomes an industrial tourist location but it’s the same place,” he said.

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